Artifact Analysis: Wooden Keyboard

Now this is an interesting keyboard modification… it’s entirely made of wood, with handmade brass keys! The creator stated briefly on the Instructable page that he was “tired of the ever present brass frame.” What other material was prevalent in Victorian designs, and subsequently Steampunk? Wood, of course.



I haven’t been able to find a lot about this creator, username Phirzcol on Instructables. Phirzcol’s profile on Instructables states this is his only instructable since he joined the website in 2007. He doesn’t have a personal website, but plans on having one soon. Phirzcol’s interests include “electronics, internet, hardware hacking, diy, science and fantasy fiction, steampunk, and anything you can make at home with few tools.”

This is my assumption (a fairly safe one, at that) based on the fact that Phirzcol has been a member of Instructables since 2007 and lists DIY and hacking as interests: Phirzcol belongs to the DIY, user-creator arm of Steampunk that I find so intriguing. Let’s analyze the keyboard with this bit of information about the creator, shall we?


This is a superficial modification of a computer keyboard, that is, the modification changes the look and feel of the keyboard, but not the function. The style of modification is declared to be Steampunk by the creator, though, to me, it simply seems more organic, perhaps because of the wooden frame, and lack of any indications that it could, potentially, be steam-powered.

The keyboard is made from an old-styled mechanical keyboard; one of the commenters suggested a keyboard from 1995 or earlier. The 1/16th inch thick hardwood was steamed for softening, and then glued to the original plastic frame with a quick dry glue. The steaming was done in order to mold the wood to the plastic. The keys were handmade from brass tubes, metal tube cutter, printed numbers and letters, cyanoacrylate for the glue, and a polymer resin.


This guy knows what he is doing, and is able to give instructions for people to replicate his work. Phirzcol not only made an entire set of keys by hand by cutting brass tubes to the correct height, printing out numbers and letters, capping off one end of the brass tube with a wooden circle and then filling the tube with a resin. He also bent wood by steaming it, applying a glue, and fitting it to the original keyboard frame. He then drilled the key holes from the back, using the plastic frame as a guide. This is not, perhaps, the most beautiful Steampunk modified keyboard, but it is obvious that a lot of time and ingenuity went into its inception.

Phirzcol knew what others were doing for their modifications, and decided to do things differently. Is this because he knew a different way to get the same effect? Is it because he didn’t have the same materials or resources as other modders? Is it because he likes to be different, and do things in a unique way? I feel it’s probably a combination of all three.

Cultural Analysis

Though this was posted in 2007, it seems those who commented on this instructable were familiar enough with Steampunk keyboard modifications that they asked why Phirzcol didn’t use existing keys from a typewriter, rather than making his own. While commenters expressed their admiration for his dedication, they seemed confused.

Why create an entirely new key, if typewriters exist and can be put to use? Why put so much time into that particular part of the project? None of the commenters seem to dispute the wooden facade of the keyboard, but they question why Phirzcol didn’t follow-through with an entirely mechanical aesthetic as seen with other Steampunk modifications by adding wooden detailing, or little mechanical flags that pop up and down depending on the different special function keys chosen (caps lock, num lock, etc). Phirzcol’s answer to many of these questions is simply, “just personal artistic preference.” I interpret this as, “That’s a pretty good idea. You do that for your project. I like mine as it is.”

This dialogue showcases the tensions within the Steampunk community, that being a differing interpretation of  Steampunk and Steampunk modifications. The mere existence of Steampunk modifications defy the constructs of what computer keyboards should look like, and how people should interact with them. Yet this modification somehow also defies the social constructs within the Steampunk keyboard modifications by only going so far.

Not painting the “clearly industrial” white power cord, for instance, upset some commenters because it detracted from the gestalt of the piece. The point of these modifications is to pretend as if the keyboard was created in that aesthetic from the start. It is meant to seem as though the keyboard belongs to the “future that never was” and is not, in fact, an old keyboard that has been made over. This is why, I feel, commenters dispute the choice of the bright blue LED light, the lack of mechanical gauges or flags, and the untouched power cable.

I am unable to tell the sex of the persons commenting, but it seems to me as though the commenters are more male than female in number. The modder, Phirzcol, is male. So again, we have a male modifying a piece of technology that for all intensive purposes represents a male-dominated profession, computing.

I’m curious about the decision to use a wooden facade rather than placing the keyboard in a wooden frame, as shown in one of my subsequent analyses. Perhaps this was the material at hand, or the material Phirzcol was familiar with. In any case, it is an approximation of  “looking period,” as stated by one of the commenters. It is not a representation of looking period. The difference, I feel, is that the wooden facade is an approximation because it is a veneer, an industrialized abstraction. Using real wood and treating it to seem old, or buying old wood in the first place, however, seems more of a representation of a period look due to the materials. One, when touching it, will feel fake. The other will delight the senses because it is an unexpected juxtaposition; organic materials performing digital functions.


Once again the ability to pull the original artifact apart without destroying its function is the first step to the personalized appropriation. If we are to empower our user-makers with our designs, therefore, I feel we need to design for dis-assembly in some form or fashion. One part of appropriation, at least in the manner I’m studying, requires a feeling of “I can try this, and I won’t break it,” or, “I can try this, and maybe I’ll break it, but I probably won’t. Let’s find out…”

Having now looked at three appropriations of keyboards, all of them different but with similarities in the act of appropriation, I feel like I’m on to something. I feel like this particular example shows how someone can be inspired by others in the Steampunk community, try their hand, share their process, and make something unique to them which also has a story to go with it.

Artifact Analysis: Remington Keyboard

This is the “Remington keyboard,” created by Quentin, a maker in Paris, France. According to the blog writeup at Of Small Wonders and Great Wanders, Quentin has been interested in the Victorian era for quite some time. He mentions Houdini, Tesla, Art Nouveau, etc, calling the era “rich,” “creative,” “dynamic,” etc.

As with other Steampunks, Quentin was intrigued by the idea of “the future that never was,” and “retro-futurism.” It wasn’t until he began looking online, however, that he discovered the term Steampunk and the varied associations with it. I’d like to use Quentin’s words to show how he responded to Jake von Slatt’s keyboard; emphasis mine:

That’s how I discovered Mr. Von Slatt‘s creations and especially his “steampunk keyboard“, a brilliant idea with great appeal to the geek living inside of me (I hear him sometimes at night, screaming insults to me in php language… it’s hard you know). Inspired by his work I decided to try it, but of course without copying his original (first because I don’t have any workshop and any of Von Slatt’s tools, second because imitation is pointless, you always have to, at least, add your own touch!).

This is a pervading attitude within the DIY community, and DIY arm of Steampunk. It’s not enough to try to replicate what someone has done previously, whether it is because you don’t have the same tools, materials, knowledge, etc.

The fact is that no matter how you try to replicate what someone else does, it will never be an exact replica because you are not that person. You are you, and therefore, you will do things differently. You will flourish your paint brush with a different flick of the wrist, etc.

Let’s move on to the artifact analysis, shall we?


This is a keyboard that belongs to a Remington typewriter. It has been modified with leather, brass buttons, brass tubing, other metal embellishments, and what looks like gold paint beneath the leather.


According to the writeup, this is the first time Quentin has attempted such a modification. Quentin must have had some experience working with leather previously, because it is known to be a difficult material to work with due to its inflexibility and general unwieldy nature. The brass and metal embellishments are a nod to the Victorian aesthetic as admired through Tesla, Houdini, etc.

The name of the keyboard has more than one meaning, especially to those with some historical interest. True, as Quentin mentioned, the keyboard is a Remington brand. However, there is also the Remington arms company, a separate entity, as well as the company which produced both Remington guns and typewriters. I suspect the style of the keyboard modification is a nod to the historical context of the keyboard itself.

Cultural Analysis

Once again, we have a man modifying a keyboard, but this time in Europe rather than the United States, which suggests that cross-culturally, it is more likely for a man than a woman to modify the aesthetics of technology. Mind that I don’t say it is impossible for a female to do such a modification, I plan to do one once I get the time (i.e. graduate and get a job). Suffice it to say, however, that I didn’t even think of doing it until I saw von Slatt’s work, and then the derivative works of those inspired by him.

That said, this keyboard is a perfect example of how Steampunks inspire one another. Here we have Quentin, a blogger so inspired by von Slatt’s work, so empowered and emboldened by von Slatt’s explanation of how he did his modification, that Quentin thought, “Hey, he did it, I can too.” Yet, Quentin didn’t have the same tools or materials as von Slatt for the modification, which didn’t deter him, I suspect, because he was confident in his ability to adapt von Slatt’s detailed instructions.

Like von Slatt, Quentin used Remington keys, but unlike von Slatt, it seems as though Quentin began with an original Remington typewriter and modified it to fit his particular Steampunk style, rather than beginning with a modern keyboard and modifying it to seem old/Steampunk-like. Given its already Victorian style and history, I am surprised that Quentin applied the “future that never was” aesthetic to the fully functional typewriter. Not only that, but he added buttons to the keyboard that are, as far as I can tell, unrelated to the function of the typewriter but map to a computer keyboard. This is, I feel, because of von Slatt’s inspirational work, which dealt with a computer keyboard. There is no need for a typewriter to have the Function 1 – 12 keys; a typewriter’s function is to place ink on a page according to the keys typed.

Additional buttons that were added include the arrow keys, but the arrows have been replaced by hands pointing in the left-right-up-down directions. It’s a whimsical touch that one often sees in Steampunk modifications, adding something distinctly human to an otherwise sterile interaction between a person and the keyboard key. Oddly, the backspace, enter, tab keys, and the like, have been reduced to arrows, for reasons unknown. Perhaps because these arrows save space on the small buttons for the identifying function, whereas a computer keyboard has larger-sized keys for these important functions, distinguishing them from letters and numbers?

A brass U-shaped pipe has been added to the top right corner of the keyboard in homage to the obsession with steam-powered artifacts within the Steampunk culture, and the “future that never was.” It doesn’t seem to do anything, and is there for purely aesthetic reasons. The existence of this non-functional part of the keyboard undermines the rigid social constructs of technology, that being whatever needs to be there, should be there, and anything unnecessary shouldn’t. Have you ever seen a keyboard with a random tube sticking out of it, for no reason other than because it made it look a little more “cool” to the owner? I hadn’t until I began looking at Steampunk modifications.

As mentioned above, the leather is intriguing to me, as it references the history of Remington as both a typewriter and gun manufacturing company. I claim that the leather references the gun portion of the Remington company because in the 19th Century, most gun holsters were made of leather. The leather hearkens back to a more rustic time in western history, when everything in our world was mechanical, supported by leather, steam, and an enthusiastic view of the future to come. It’s a tongue-in-cheek combination of both into one, revealing the humor that often occurs with Steampunk modifications, that being the juxtaposition of unexpected with the mundane. The keyboard, as mentioned by one of the blog post commenters, seems to be more of a “laboratory or field-use model than the parlor room.”

An additional comment on the blog post struck a chord with me, that being “I’m not so talented, but I can copy so, I am working on recreating von Slatt’s design myself.” There is something to the transparency of both von Slatt and Quentin’s work which speaks to others in the community. Whether the steps to the modification are explicit or not, others are able to see where changes were made, and can extrapolate to determine how they would do the same. It’s inspiring, to say the least.


It seems the community aspect of the DIY arm of Steampunk is integral to the creation of such artifacts, especially similar modifications like keyboards. Not only do individuals inspire one another, but the modification of one will color the modification of another. For example, Quentin’s modification looked like a “field-use model” rather than the more typical “parlor room” models one usually sees with Steampunk keyboard modifications. Did this inspire other styles of keyboard modifications?

The explicit explanations from von Slatt’s modification empowered and enabled Quentin to do his modification. What can we learn from this as designers?

Perhaps if we provide the rationale behind our designs, it will allow our more advanced user-makers to interpret, adapt, and/or alter the design to their particular style. When these advanced user-makers explain what they did and why they did it on their blogs, intermediate and beginner makers will feel inspired and enabled to do something similar, but at their level. At least, it’s a theory I have, based on what I’m seeing from the emerging communal relationships between Steampunk keyboard user-makers.

*I’m not sure where I just came up with the term user-maker, but it makes sense to me. Perhaps I ought to write another post exploring my meaning behind this term…

Artifact Analysis: Von Slatt Keyboard

I begin my keyboard artifact analysis by looking at the Steampunk inventor/artist who seems to inspire almost everyone else, Jake von Slatt. A little bit of background, first.

“Meet Mr. Steampunk”

According to an article in Wired, von Slatt (a pseudonym) is an “IT professional, managing Beowulf clusters for a small research firm outside of Boston.” Von Slatt describes himself as a “Steampunk mechanical hacker” who believes the “do-it-yourself and Steampunk movements are driven by the same obsession: the idea that a single mad engineer working in his lab can help change the world by having mastery over his machines.”

Von Slatt is, as P8 from my interviews would say, is a maker. A maker, according to P8, is more than a crafter because of their willingness to be open with their process; to teach, to encourage feedback and discussion. It would be one thing for von Slatt to make his beautiful inventions and keep them to himself and his family. It’s an entirely different thing now that he’s put them online, documented his process so others can replicate it and alter it to suit their personal style.

I’ve been unable to get a direct interview with Von Slatt, which is completely understandable since he’s the celebrity of Steampunk: everyone I have managed to interview has mentioned his name. That said, I’ve seen some of the interviews he’s given for Wired Science, etc, which helps me analyze his creative process (I hope).

The Keyboard Mod

According to von Slatt, he went into this modification knowing he wanted to build a functioning keyboard that was nice enough quality to use every day. I’m very lucky as a researcher because von Slatt has made his entire creative process available for me to analyze, and creative commons attribution, at that.  So to begin, let’s look at the before and after of the finished piece.




According to the write-up, this keyboard is made of the original IBM Model M “Clicky” keyboard base, brass plating, keyboard keys, brass-rimmed buttons, photo paper to cover the buttons,  felt, translucent acetate, G.E. Silicon II Window and Door Sealant, gaffer’s tape, clear lacquer, and black spray paint.


It’s fairly obvious to anyone looking at this keyboard modification that not only is von Slatt a tinkerer, he knows what he is doing. Not only does he know what he is doing, but he is able to describe and explain what he is doing so others can replicate his process.

For example, the reason why he chose the Model M keyboard was because it has “removable key caps and the under-cap has a flat surface ideal for affixing a new key top.” What can we learn from this as designers? Perhaps that it is okay if we make objects that our users can pull apart without ruining the functionality? It should be noted that even though the key caps were removable with a screwdriver, von Slatt took care to do it properly. After removing the keys, von Slatt cut off the “skirt” that surrounds the key post by using a dremmel tool, and sanded the edges so that the key post is flat enough for a keyboard keys to be glued to it. It is this level of detail that we can expect from von Slatt. He used gaffer’s tape to deaden the sound of the keys clattering against the plastic, and lined the top of the keyboard with black felt to cover the beige plastic of the keyboard bed, I assume.

The base of the keyboard is made of brass plate, which, while being the favorite of Steampunks, seems to be a metal that von Slatt has liked for years, as said in his Wired Science interview. As with other Steampunks, von Slatt seems to have been interested in such metals and aesthetics before there was such a term as Steampunk. Contrary to the true Victorian aesthetic, which we tend to see as an egregious amount of decoration, von Slatt wanted the design of the keyboard to be “simple and clean.” The resulting design actually takes up less space than the original model.

The key faces are a mixture of typewriter keys and print-outs for the function keys. As the typewriter didn’t have the corresponding mappings for our function keys (1 – 12), von Slatt typed roman numerals on photo paper, and glued them to some brass-edged buttons he found. The extra spaces left from the larger keys (enter, backspace, caps lock, etc) were covered with the left-over holes from the felt.

Cultural Analysis

Everyone, and I mean everyone, in the Steampunk community knows about Jake von Slatt. What he does, and what he shows on his website, is seen as gospel, as it were. What for him are fun experiments to be shared with others have become inspirational sources for others who never knew they could have keyboards and LCD monitors that would fit in with their preferred style.

The most interesting part of Steampunk modification is its explicit intertextuality, as listed below.

  • Steampunk modification references the lush aesthetics and materials of the Victorian era.
  • Steampunk modification suggests the romantic meaning we associate with the Victorians.
  • Steampunk modification borrows techniques from other Steampunk modifications.

Before I go into more detail about the Victorians, I should, for full disclosure, admit that most of my knowledge of the Victorians is of the English, not American, history. This is due to my extensive and intensive research for a novel I am in the process of writing, set in the 1880s.

Now then. The Victorians were known for their intricate handwork, and the rising tensions between industrialization and craftsmanship. Why? Because machinery was on the rise, farming was on the outs, and with it, handcraft. In England especially, the method of farmers tilling the land and the aristocracy owning it was on the downward slope due to the United States flooding the market with cheaper imports of flour, wheat, cotton, etc. The English market simply couldn’t keep up, and so turned its eye to manufacturing using the imported raw materials. The rise of industrialization, i.e. machinery replacing men, concerned William Morris. William Morris was the craftsman, artist, and architect who began the Arts and Crafts Movement, where the point was to combine form and function so they worked inseparably, creating, as I’ve often quoted before, a “thing of beauty forever.” He championed and romanticized the handwork of artisan masters and disdained the impersonal, shoddy work of machinery-made products. I say champion and romanticize because he argued for the more complex, more intricate, more meaningful production that a craftsman could create in comparison to the simpler, impersonal products Victorian machinery created.

Steampunk, as I see it, is a continuation of this Arts and Crafts movement issue. It romanticizes the Victorian era as a simpler time, the “good ole times,” as it were, before the age of  the impersonal, cold, sterile computer.  The Victorians used what we consider lush materials, both for aesthetic and pragmatic reasons. There was no such thing as mass production at the time, at least not to the scale we see today, and so we see the Victorians as carefully handcrafting all the everyday objects in their homes and offices. We see the formality and wish for the elegance. Simple objects like pitchers, writing desks, telephones, chairs, etc, have a level of detail and organic beauty that we rarely see in designs today. When we call something beautifully designed today it’s for the clean lines, the distinctly modern and stark style that we think futuristic designs should look like. And computers, of all things, should have modern, contemporary designs, right?

Beyond all this, Victorian designs are still around today, which speaks to their longevity. We know what a Victorian typewriter looks like not only from photos, illustrations, and advertisements, but also because people today still own them and see them as objects of beauty. Same thing with light posts, cash registers, and other random objects that people use for decorative purposes in their homes. The Victorian designs were built for disassembly for the simple reason that they couldn’t design it otherwise; they didn’t have the technology, often enough, to completely close off an object’s form and prevent curious exploration.

The same thing happened with modern computing. When the personal computer came into being, computers were made for disassembly because we didn’t have the technology to do otherwise. This became the play space of the curious tinkerer, and companies such as Apple actually included the hardware specifications to encourage use and exploration in the 1980s. Where did that go? Why don’t companies do that today? Part of this culture disappeared because our market has turned into a services industry, which means by definition the majority of our population doesn’t work with its hands anymore. With this comes the realization that we miss working with our hands, and so turn to a time when working with our hands was more prevalent, i.e., the early Victorian era.

Why not other eras, I wonder? I’ve come to realize that so much of Western culture today is heavily influenced by the Victorians, due to the first time in history England had a “middle class.” We are in the midst of a global economic crisis, and here in the United States we are losing our middle class. We are on the tail end of what the Victorians began, and that frightens us, because we don’t know where to go from here. We can’t relate to the Georgian or Regency, for instance, because those cultures still clung to the more traditional market of aristocracy and everyone else. Everyone else being farmers,  merchants, lawyers, clergy, etc. The Victorian middle class began the obsession with cleanliness equating to Godliness, because they needed a way to distinguish themselves from the lower classes, who perhaps didn’t have the time or energy to be constantly cleaning. The Victorian era was dirty, my friends. It took a full day to do simple laundry because the washing machine was in the process of being invented. There was constant black smoke spewing from the stovepipes and chimneys of London, rats, cockroaches, and rampant exploitation of children in the factories. But we don’t reference these things with Steampunk, we reference the excitement of innovation and exploration that happened during the Victorian era. We want to feel the golden glow of being a part of Victoria’s Empire; we want the hopeful gaiety of the era, and forget our apathy and ennui.

Interestingly, I’ve found that of the Steampunk modifications, men tend to do technology such as keyboards, monitors, etc, and women tend to do jewelry and costuming. This isn’t to say the opposite doesn’t happen, it’s just what I’ve found as yet. Why is that? Why do men modify technology, and women jewelry/clothing? Culturally speaking here in the United States, this is a fairly typical gender distinction. I know I am an anomaly for the simple fact that I am a female with a computer engineering degree, I am not afraid to dive into the guts of my computer or encourage someone else to do the same because I know I have access to a tutorial online from someone who is, presumably, more experience than I am with such matters. Besides which, I have the experience of working with my father with his computers when I was younger. He taught me the rules about grounding oneself when working in a mini-tower to prevent my inevitable static electricity from shorting the motherboard, and how to vacuum the dust from the interior without pulling out the more delicate pieces, etc.


Um… Jake von Slatt is my hero, and I can see why everyone and their mother is inspired by his works?

In all seriousness, it seems to me there is a lot to interpret here. First, why choose a keyboard to modify? Von Slatt had the keyboard, I assume, since 1989 based on the fact that he also knew the exact model of machine that came with the keyboard. There was history with the keyboard, and a knowledge of how to take it apart without destroying the actual functionality. There is also the fact that, being an IT manager of Beowolf clusters, the keyboard is his livelihood. He no doubt works at a keyboard every day, and why shouldn’t a professional of his caliber have a nice instrument with which to work?

As a designer, I see the following points as opportunities to empower my user:

  • I can design for disassembly.
  • In designing for disassembly, I can provide the specifications of the design to encourage exploration.
  • In designing for disassembly, I can provide tutorials and side projects online to encourage a dialogue and therefore more personal meaning.

Busy Week, Busier Weekend

I spent this past entire week working on a presentation that I gave yesterday at the local Instructional Systems Technology conference. I was freaking out for some reason, and literally did nothing but prepare my slides for the presentation. I move quickly through my slides, so I wasn’t surprised that I had 75 slides for a 20 minute presentation. Other people thought I was insane until I actually went through my presentation.

It was super well received, which surprised me. My question-answer session was challenging, but I handled it really well. I mean, I thought the questions were manageable, but people afterwords told me they were really tough questions. One of my questioners told me I should pursue a PhD with my topic, and that my topic should be my dissertation because it’s timely and meaningful. And  I think I would, I do love this topic and my research, I just need to learn how to create and stick to a routine that makes sure I eat and sleep properly. Life as a student for essentially 20 years has ruined me.

Anyway, people who had never seen me present before, but have been friends here on campus, saw me do my thing and were impressed. I video recorded the entire thing using my FlipCam Ultra, so when I get time (ha!) I’ll post it to Vimeo and link it to you guys.

There is a reason behind my madness over Steampunk. And other academics are recognizing it. Yay! Also, I want to thank Chad, Burr, Yujia, Xuan, Nate, Lynn, Ammar, Gopi, and Vidya for attending my presentation session. Having familiar faces in the audience was comforting, and those of you who asked questions asked some really good ones!

I also had an informal meeting with the other research capstone students yesterday. They helped me with my current problem, which is that I think the methodology I outlined for analyzing my interviews is the wrong one for me. I really enjoyed speaking with people, and soaked their enthusiasm, and I’m beginning to see patterns. However, I don’t relish the idea of analysis because I feel the methodology I chose sucks out the enthusiasm that defines Steampunk.

My research peers suggested that I listen to my interviews again as if I were listening to a story. Where are the climaxes, the lulls, the plot twists? This definitely works for me much better because I am a narrative soul, and when describing the interviews to my thesis adviser I was narrating, rather than reporting. As such, my plan is to listen through the five interviews I have, prepare for my interview tomorrow, and write insights onto Post-Its so I can ask people to help me with an affinity diagram. The affinity diagram will help me abstract the main insights, and strengthen my theory.

In the meantime, I should stop blogging and continue grading my third of 55 undergrad reports. The joys of being a teaching assistant! Later, kids.

Artifact Analysis at Rate My Steampunk!

I do, in fact, have 75% of an artifact analysis (a detailed analysis) waiting in the wings. In the meantime, I’ve dumped the other artifacts I’d like to study into a public blog.

If you have some free time, help me categorize and rate the Steampunk artifacts at Rate My Steampunk!.

I’ve tried to make it as easy as possible for you. I’ve put up a rating system, and I’ve installed a plugin so you can use your existing social networking usernames.

Help me, oh mighty internet addicts. You’re my only hope.

Light-bulb Moments

Things have been pretty hectic around here, but somehow I still manage to make progress on my capstone. I love having conversations with the people in my program because the most interesting points come up.

Creativity isn’t consistent

I had lunch with Chad Camara one day, and we got into this conversation about creativity. He mentioned that even though we are both creative, he sees our creativity as being very different. Mainly, that mine is extremely personal. I write stories that reflect some deep belief or question that I have. I paint, draw, dance, sing, sketchnote, and create objects from clay.

I write this because it seems that my intrinsically personal creativity is a huge part of my self-perception and identity. If I can’t be creative, I feel lost. In the same way, if I can’t appropriate something into my world so that it feels personal to me, I don’t care about it. So that’s food for thought.

Getting push-back

I had a design session with my roommate, Lynn, and she had the brilliant idea of looking at how people look at objects. She made the point that I see everything as a potential building material to make something else… which she simply doesn’t do.

Nov 5, 2009: Lynn Dombrowski suggests that I do a design exercise where I take people to Goodwill, etc, and ask people what they would do with the objects they find. Will they see built/”finished” materials as components of new projects?

It has since occurred to me that not only do I learn from what they choose, but also what they don’t choose. As in, what do I see as building materials, and why don’t they see them that way?

Nov 8, 2009: Rachel Bolton asks me questions that stump me, only because all my information is stuffed somewhere in an inaccessible part of my brain. Her questions, however, start a subtle thought-chain which eventually lead me to my light bulb moment.

  1. What makes the steampunk appropriation unique… what are the
    specific implications for HCI?
  2. What makes the creative/identity rewards of appropriation
    (specifically steampunk?) different from other identity-forming
    endeavors like sports?  Is it the process, the materials, the people
    that are attracted to it?

Because I find I have difficulty answering these questions, I begin to wonder if it’s so smart to be studying steampunk in the first place. I love the topic, I find it fascinating, but really, what does it mean for HCI? I asked for push-back from Rachel, and she gave it to me, and I had no answer. Sigh.

Class Exercise

On Tuesday, Nov 10, we were required to bring our sketches in for discussion in small groups. Because I’m doing a research capstone, I was a bit stumped. I’m not sketching, at least not in the visual sense. So I brought in my pseudo-affinity diagram, pictured below.

Poster of Themes and Questions

So I threw it up on the wall with all the other sketches.

Sketching Exercise

Sketching Exercise

During this exercise, we had groups of four-to-five students. We walked to our different sketches and discussed the purpose of them, etc. My group was awesome with feedback. CJ Page admitted that he doesn’t appropriate anything at all, which just boggles my mind. I appropriate almost everything that comes into my life, in some form or another. It’s my way of engaging with the world. Which struck me as a worrying point while CJ spoke.

Light-bulb moment

That night after capstone, I climbed into bed with a frown. Something was off, I realized, in how I was approaching this entire research project. It wasn’t until about eleven at night that I had my epiphany.

You see, I had a dream about capstone. Specifically, a dream in which I realized my case study group (steampunks) don’t have to be my target user group. At first, I stayed in bed, repeating that mantra to myself: “Case study doesn’t equal target user.” I quickly became paranoid that I would forget the epiphany by morning’s light. So I grabbed my whiteboard markers and attacked my unsuspecting whiteboard for about two hours.

Sketching Exercise

I’m feeling pretty good about this direction. I feel like I have an idea of how I can apply the literature and my own experiences, compare them to the experiences of people who don’t do such things, and see what we can learn. Now if I could only find the time… and get some sleep!

Status Report

I think it’s time for my first real status report. Here is what I’ve accomplished in the last two weeks…

  • I finished reading a number of papers on creativity, DIY, and appropriation. I would list them, but I don’t have them with me at the moment
  • I created some fake Steampunk goggles for my Halloween costume
  • I completed my Steampunk machine for ceramics. It’s currently drying out and waiting to be fired in the kiln
  • I defined my current idea of appropriation
  • I went through all of the papers I’ve read and pulled interesting or important quotations that help build the argument I’m forming in my head
  • I went back through all those same papers and pulled out interesting/important concepts, theories, issues, and questions from them. Each one got its own sticky note and pasted to the wall above my bed
    • There are about thirty of them, and I still have more papers to go through, so eventually, I need to determine which concepts/theories are more important, which are sub-concepts, etc
  • I dressed up as a Steampunk character for Halloween
    • I created an entire persona and spoke with a fake English accent. I was “Lady Almyra Gunn, Steampunk scientist, researcher, and explorer extraodinaire.” It was awesome
    • Someone actually recognized I was Steampunk! Apparently they have a friend who modded their laptop to look Steampunk, and was highlighted in Gizmodo back in August
    • Obviously, I got their contact information and have asked to speak to their friend, especially since the friend lives in Indiana, perhaps Bloomington, even
    • I documented all stages of my costume, including the original clothing selection, the additions, etc. I plan to blog about this later
  • I’ve collected some initial research questions on sticky notes

You know, I kind of thought I’d done more than that. But I guess not. It’s amazing how much time certain tasks will take! Well, with that out of the way, what would I like to accomplish in the next two weeks?

To do list

  • I have to determine an activity for my capstone class tomorrow night. Don’t know what I’m going to do yet
  • I want to determine my primary research question and any related sub-questions or potential opposing questions
    • This means I need to come up with more questions
    • I also need to start card sorting my questions, concepts, theories, issues, etc
  • I want to determine my primary research plan. Where will I try to get interview subjects, and why? This includes sources like Etsy, Flickr, blogs, indie magazines, etc
  • I’ve looked up the CHI work-in-progress details, but I still haven’t determined a plan of what I would like to have accomplished when
    • I need to figure out my plan for the remainder of the semester, actually. Gulp
  • I keep finding more books and papers to read, but at some point, I need to cut myself off
    • Gotta find some reasons to do primary research
    • Again, this means I need to determine my primary research question

So yeah. That’s my plan.

Pilot Studies

There are a couple of great things about SteamPunk which I would like to share.

  1. True SteamPunks are all about sharing their knowledge of craft. For instance, I-Wei Huang wrote an article describing how your SteamPunk drawings can be more authentic… which has helped my sketching immensely for ceramics.
  2. People have no idea what it is, and when I describe it, they’re always excited. Or at least intrigued.
  3. If I decide to go SteamPunk for Halloween, I only have to buy goggles and potentially make a bustle because guess what, I already have the rest of the costume in my wardrobe. Sweet.
  4. There is so much information out there about SteamPunk for me to sift through, and most of it is entertaining.
  5. Did I mention there’s a SteamPunk Guide to the Apocalypse? I’m prepared. Are you?

All right, now let’s get a little more serious, here. This past week one of the first years, Robert Begley, engaged my topic. He asked me some great questions that helped crystallize some of my thoughts, and I wanted to document that somewhere, i.e. here at Siriomi Reflects.

Robert’s email:

Okay I have a couple questions 🙂 🙂
First off, are you focusing more on why people (self)customize, DIY, etc vs. buying the actual, branded, product or going to a professional to get something customized? Are you using Steampunk more as a reference in terms of.. well so for example in video games, in the genre, there tends to be customizations of weapons/tools/etc. You mentioned Bioshock for example, have you played it? Have you seen those “customizations”? I want to say Steampunk comes with the idea of the “mad scientist” where there is *only* one person who creates these “technological advances” in a non-technological world – or rather that it is more rare to see tech. So no commercialization obviously etc…
Is customization/DIY/hacking/<add another word here that relations> more of your focus?
I’m just trying to understand more of your focus and where Steampunk fits in ;p

My reply…

Excellent! I’m glad you’re asking these questions.

I’m focusing on why people self-customized through DIY. I’m using Steampunk as an example of the DIY movement, as the people who alter the aesthetics of their technology typically do it themselves… they have the skill set and apply it creatively to something that traditionally is bought and used without any particular customization (keyboards, monitors, iPhones, etc).

I have not played Bioshock, I had only just heard about it before speaking with you.

I see Steampunk almost as a rebellious movement against the homogenized technology that currently rules our world. I’m interested in that. Why are people rebelling against this? Why is it important for people to feel connected to the objects in their lives? Why do they take that extra step to customize/personalize/hack something, when others don’t?

But yes. I am interested in self-personalization, the creative motivations that go into DIY appropriation. Steampunk is merely my example of this, as there are plenty of people to interview, either online or in-person.

Thanks! This helped me clear up a lot of things. Let me know if you have any more questions.

Robert then surprised me by telling me a story about his own DIY dabbling, which is EXCELLENT, and a great pilot study example of DIY and some appropriation. I did a happy dance. I have yet to respond to his email because I’ve been running across state lines this past week, but that’s next on my To Do list. Just wanted to update on my capstone progress.

Brass Goggles and Lace

So I’m working on my capstone proposal, and I’m worried. I’m worried, because I’m not sure this is exactly what I’m trying to study, or if I’m letting professors put words into my mouth because it sounds good, or if I’m saying these things because I feel it’s easier to argue for them. Anyway, see below for my draft, which took far too many hours to write. I need critique!


Brass Goggles and Lace: Steampunk as a Case Study of the DIY Creative Process and the Implications for the HCI Design Process

Target group affected by study
Interaction Designers

Binaebi Akah

Description of Problem Space

Why does the do-it-yourself (DIY) movement exist? It is more convenient and possibly even more practical to buy a finished product. Yet, stores like Lowes, JoAnn Fabrics, and Hobby Lobby; television shows like Design on a Dime, Trading Spaces, and Carter Can; and websites like Design Sponge, Etsy, and Instructables, are all flourishing. Why is this? I often hear it is the economy, and this is why people are doing more on their own. This is both true and untrue… it is still much cheaper to buy clothing than to make it from a yard of fabric, for instance, and I have the receipts to prove it.I contend that a large portion of the DIY movement exists because it is in people’s nature to be creative; to want something that is personal, meaningful, unique, and with a story. But DIY itself is vast and deep; so I am focusing on Steampunk as a case study.

Steampunk has multiple connotations with fashion, fiction, music, and technological aesthetics, among others. I am focusing on the latter. The technological aesthetics of Steampunk rebel against our always-connected-with-my-super-high-tech-homogenized-gadget culture by finding inspiration in the past, specifically, the Victorian era, when industrialization did not mean homogenized yet. Why do people join this movement, and how? What is their creative process?

Why Important

My goal is to learn how and why people become involved in this movement. What is their creative process? How does it differ from traditional computer science and interaction design processes? The do-it-yourself movement is all about discovery, personal meaning, the art of craft, choice, freedom, and invention… is it possible to bring some of these traits into the interaction design process? What would this mean to human computer interaction design?


People tell stories.

People create and feel creative.

People embed objects in their personal lives.

People invest when there is a perceived benefit.


I have been reading about appropriation, the diy movement, hacking, creativity, identity, and, of course, Steampunk. This is to get a basis for definitions about creativity and the individual, and how it shapes the individual’s creative process. I have begun to involve myself in the Steampunk movement by buying the independent magazine and following the top blogs. I will conduct narrative interviews and hopefully some walkthrough probes to learn about the creative process and how these DIYers define themselves as creative individuals. I hope to attend a Steampunk convention, but that depends on availability.

Preliminary Plan

Please see here for my visual timeline.